Super Rugby Popularity is Declining and Rumours of a South African Exit Abound

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Super Rugby Review
LLANELLI, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05: Francois Venter of the cheetahs during the Guinness Pro14 match between Scarlets and Toyota Cheetahs at Parc y Scarlets Stadium on April 07, 2018 in Llanelli, United Kingdom. (Photo by Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

There have been many articles published recently trying to define the reasons behind the decline in Super Rugby popularity; Especially if you happen to support an Australian or South African team.

Decline in Super Rugby Popularity

The digging for the reasons behind the decline in Super Rugby popularity has also resulted in many rumours being published as a fait accompli. From South Africa exiting Super Rugby in its entirety, to three teams making the switch to compete up North.

Where there is smoke….

SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos went on record on Monday 7 May to throw water on the flames of these rumours. In a statement that can be read here, Marinos said:

“SANZAAR is currently engaged in a detailed strategic planning process that has the ultimate and very important aim of producing a road map for the competitions’ future formats up to and including 2030, and in the shorter term the delivery to market of competitions for the next iteration of SANZAAR’s broadcasting rights.”

Most cynics will correctly say: “Nice try!” As the old adage warns us, where there is smoke there is fire. The likelihood is that SA Rugby will play one of two strategies during this review period. The first scenario would be to use the threat of removing all their teams from SANZAAR competitions to strengthen their negotiating hand to get the very best deal and competition format to suit the needs of their franchises and Provincial Unions. They are able to do this given the viewership emanating from the South African market, pumping up the value of broadcasting rights. The other scenario would be to take part in the review as they are a current SANZAAR partner and they are obliged to do so, but the reality is that the decision may already have been made.

Adding Jurie Roux and Rassie Erasmus to the board of the PRO14 might not be absolute proof of anything, but it does hint at a bigger issue at play. The improved broadcasting deal will also make the tournament a lot more lucrative for SA Rugby.

So what has brought about the decline in Super Rugby Popularity?

There can be no doubt that there has been a decline in support for Super Rugby. Viewership and interest is down. Unless there is a derby game such as the recent Stormers vs Bulls game, the South African stadiums host no more than a sprinkling of fans, with the exception of the Lions. Despite their success in recent years, game attendance has dropped.

To find out how rugby fans feel about what could be behind the decline in Super Rugby popularity, we asked our friends on Twitter and Facebook for their comments. Below is a summary of what we were told.

The format is unpopular

A three conference system that does not feature each team playing every other team at least once is not acceptable to the viewer. Teams that finish mid-table can also find themselves playing in a playoff game as a wild card that they are highly unlikely to win away from home.

The competition has become too predictable

It has become an almost worldwide joke when the question is asked what Super Rugby is about. Fifteen teams from four countries compete in an overly long tournament and eventually a New Zealand team wins. Not too far from the truth. Take a look at Last Word on Rugby Scott Hornell’s view on the Australian teams losing streak here. The reality is that the competition is far too predictable. If something is too predictable, there is no excitement. It’s pretty simple.

Cutting teams has been a failure – fans have lost faith in SANZAAR

The Jaguares improved performance this season has changed many fans’ minds about the new teams added to the competition. The critical comparison here is between the Cheetahs and the Sunwolves. The Cheetahs did struggle in the competition. They were not the worst team around and were capable of upsetting a few teams. At the time of writing, the Sunwolves had played 9 games in 2018 and lost all of them. They have a points difference of -193, making that an average losing margin of 21.4 points per game. No matter of justifying their place in the competition under the guise of “improving the game in Japan” can justify their inability to compete.

SANZAAR have lost a lot of credibility in fans eyes due to decision making that fans cannot align themselves to. SA Rugby have compounded the problem by accepting that they need to cut two teams from Super Rugby in order to strengthen their remaining four teams. They followed this up by negotiating to include those two teams in the PRO12, creating the PRO14. No change to the status quo.

Will the decline in Super Rugby popularity prompt SA Rugby to jump ship?

With all that has been said, a move North does seem to be a viable option. The future of Super Rugby is under review. There is a growing voice of discontent among fans regarding the format and the teams involved. Earning Euro’s will also weigh heavily on the Board’s thinking.

This is how Last Word on Rugby sees the scenario playing itself out, warts and all.

Exiting SANZAAR’s ‘domestic’ competition will have a significant downside. Such an exit would go hand in hand with exiting SANZAAR’s other competition, The Rugby Championship. It is inconceivable that SA Rugby will walk away from an annual guaranteed sold out stadium at home against the All Blacks. If not during The Rugby Championship, then when? In terms of competing in an annual international competition, it is unlikely that the Springboks will be added to an expanded ‘7 Nations’ tournament. We just don’t see it happening.

Is there a solution?

Is it possible that SA Rugby have played a masterstroke and have a foot in each hemisphere? The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers in a revised Super Rugby competition and the Cheetahs, Griquas, Kings and Pumas competing in the PRO14 (PRO16)? There are doubts if they will have the player resources to be able to sustain this, but what if there is a second income stream coming out of Europe and they are able to counter-act the player drain to Europe?

We suggest you grab a bag of popcorn and watch how this scenario plays itself out. We do believe though that the rugby landscape after 2019 is going to be very different from the current situation.

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